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Shinto Denial

I read quite a lot of English academic books and articles about Shinto. Not all of them, but a high proportion (there aren’t that many…). I often find them irritating, and I have been thinking about the reasons. It is not usually because they are poorly researched or badly written — neither of those is normally a problem. (Yes, there are occasional exceptions, but that is rare.) At the moment, I think there are two main reasons. One of these is a problem that I would like to see the academic community address (by stopping doing it). The other is, I think, more a problem with my reaction to a feature of academic writing that may even be, from a wider perspective, desirable.

This post is about the first problem, and the next one will be about the second.

The first problem is the English-language consensus that “Shinto” probably doesn’t exist, and certainly doesn’t go back very far into history.

My problem with this is that, by the standards applied to Shinto, Christianity does not exist. There are a number of more-or-less local traditions of Jesus-worship, Mary-worship, and Saint-worship (although putting all the saints together is probably not really justifiable), but they are deeply and profoundly different from each other even now, and do not necessarily recognise each other as “Christian”. (Indeed, there are some conservative “Christians” who sincerely doubt whether the current Pope is Catholic.) It is true that the word “Christianity” has been used for almost two thousand years, but no-one with any knowledge of the history of “Christianity” would claim that there were any substantial commonalities between any contemporary “Christian” practice and the practice referred to at that time. (Yes, there are some modern invented traditions that claim to be old, but they are modern invented traditions.)

Indeed, on these standards Buddhism does not exist either. In order to describe Tendai, Jōdo, and Rinzai as examples of the same religion, you need rather eccentric definitions of “same” and “religion”. In fact, I have heard that the Dalai Lama regards Tendai as a variety of Shinto, not of Buddhism. (In the story I heard, he rejected the idea that the theory of original enlightenment was compatible with Buddhism.) Obviously, the non-existence of Buddhism is a problem for the idea that pre-modern Shinto was just a part of Buddhism.

Note that I do not think that this is a sensible attitude to either Christianity or Buddhism — or, for the same reasons, to Shinto.

I think there are three causes of this attitude to Shinto, all of which are bad. One is ignorance of other religious traditions, leading to the mistaken impression that there is something particularly diverse and fractured about Shinto. I do not think that this is the case — you can make a case for Shinto being more accepting of internal diversity than many religious traditions, but I don’t think it has much more actual diversity than, say, Christianity or Buddhism.

A second is a desire to denigrate Shinto. I hope that this is less common now, but in the post-War context, I think it was important, for fairly obvious reasons. The influence of the Western religious hierarchy, with Protestant Christianity at the top, was also probably important.

The third is the tendency of academics to write as if they have a privileged insight into the truth that is unavailable to the poor, benighted souls who are actually practising a tradition. In the sciences, of course, this is generally true — biologists understand our bodies better than we do. In the humanities, however, I think the desire to be able to take the Olympian stance occasionally pushes academics to come up with positions that they know would not be accepted by the people they study.

(As a side note, academics, in my experience, tend to hate it when you turn their own analytical practices back on them.)

(Yes, that is also a rhetorical move.)

Fortunately, I think this tendency is weakening. Recent research, particularly by younger scholars (as in, younger than me — although if they are naming their son “Raistlin”, as in one recent book dedication, probably not much younger than me), seems much more likely to recognise that there is a continuous tradition here, with lots of changes, and may even decide to call it “Shinto”.

I think the practice should just be abandoned. There is a tradition in Japan that has been called Shinto since the second-oldest surviving Japanese written record (albeit not consistently) and been seen as having some sort of unity from the same period (the lists of jinja in the Izumo-no-Kuni Fudoki demonstrate this). Practitioners today call it Shinto and see it as a continuing tradition, even as they recognise its current and past diversity. Academics studying the subject should do the same.

I have a Patreon, where people join as paid members to receive an in-depth essay on some aspect of Shinto every month, or as free members to receive notifications of updates to this blog. If that sounds interesting to you, please take a look.

14 thoughts on “Shinto Denial”

  1. I agree with you. And I wish I could see a solution to the problems you’ve highlighted here.

    If it helps you in your work, one of the better descriptions I’ve read of Shinto, from a priest of a family shrine, was that he felt Shinto to be an “ortho-praxy” rather than an “ortho-doxy”… that is to say it is united by people following simlar practices, rather than all believing the same thing.


    1. I agree that Shinto is better described as an orthopraxy, and I think that this is an important part of the problem — western scholars are accustomed to thinking of religions in terms of doctrines, and so they tend to look for things that Shinto has never had. (The blog post is simplified to keep the length down.)

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. I know what you mean, I’m currently reading Aike P. Rot’s “Forests of the Gods” and have encountered a similar idea. There is at least a distinction there between Shinto (current practice) and “Shinto”, the author uses quotes to specify the historical trend and not the government influenced practice.

    I can see the idea since certain parts of State Shinto are not historical but the distinction does an injustice to the practices and places that have been transmitted since so long ago. The idea of Christianity not existing is very interesting, I hadn’t seen it put that way before (though possibly because I’ve only read academic responses to Shinto and not other religions).

    1. I don’t think anyone has actually suggested that Christianity does not exist, and certainly not academics writing about that religion in English. For a start, most of them are Christians…

      Certain parts of State Shinto were definitely made up. I will be posting a (very favourable) review of a book studying that history next week.

      Thanks for the comment.

  3. For a look at Buddhist ends of things, what might be of interest is Stephen Batchelor’s _After Buddhism_, . . . where—_very_ succinctly—in in his case, he notes that Oh, Yes, there are All Sorts of rather different groups rather claiming to be Buddhist . . . so let’s have a really close look at the original commentary . . . where Oh, My, does one start finding quite a few bits of something else apparently grafted on here, there, whatnot . . so let’s have some even _closer_ looks at the original sources, and varying resulting practices . . . .

  4. I greatly enjoyed reading this as well as all of the comments, without repeating what has already been said and probably comparatively poorly, thank you all.

  5. A great post, as always, but what stood out to me is that ‘Raistlin’ is kind of loaded name to give your son.

  6. Pingback: Academic Overgeneralisation – Mimusubi

  7. I commented on the newest post, and here’s my comment on this post. To provide evidence of a continuous tradition the local Jinja I was visiting monthly was recorded in the Engishiki as the second Jinja (or first branch Jinja) of Izanagi Jingu and was already established in the 800s. To say “Shinto” is not a continuous tradition disregards the long history of this Jinja and other Jinja as well.

    And another observation I noticed which you might find interesting. I noticed there is sometimes a tendency for English-speaking academics to treat Shinto like neo-paganism. Which I think is not a good way to view Shinto. So I practice Shinto here in Japan, but before I had gained an interest in other religions like modern germanic heathenry. This area is very complicated academically and is quite confusing to navigate since it’s changing so rapidly, but I did some research and started talking to people online in these communities, and I noticed a couple of trends which I think are common amongst neo-pagan movements. At first I say “oh I’m learning how to practice Shinto”, they become interested and we talk about either the theology or practice differences between Shinto and neo-paganism. Some have even commented that they wanted to venerate kami along with their pantheon’s gods/spirits/ancestors. But I noticed their attitude often treats Shinto as a novelty and disregards already established ritual practice (which is very important in Shinto), and they opt for doing ritual practice in their own personal way or in their particular neo-pagan practice. This is especially true, if they talk about syncretizing elements of Shinto or kami into their practices, and often maintaining Shinto ritual traditions or concepts are ignored. When I bring up this point, they get annoyed. This might just be a fundamental difference between Shinto and neo-paganism movements

    1. I think the difference between Shinto and neo-paganism is very important, and not quite as straightforward as it might be. The continuity of practice in Shinto makes a significant difference; to take an analogy from Wicca, Shinto has “initiatory lineages” with a securely documented history going back over a thousand years, and in at least one case (Dazaifu Tenmangū), their claim to be descended from their kami is also securely documented. But on the other hand, you can’t just make up any old ritual and call it germanic heathenry, either. You do have to ground it in what we know about the history (at least, as far as I understand it). It would be difficult to provide a rigorous account of the difference between the two cases, but I do think the difference exists, and is important.

      Very interesting comment, thank you.

    2. As a Shinto practitioner in the United States (who often associates with neo-pagans), you are absolutely right. Shinto is treated as just another polytheistic religion that can be shuffled into their eclectic deck of pantheons (despite not being theistic or a religion). They make no attempt to understand the history or ritual, they just throw around the big names (and do not even pronounce them correctly) as though it is the same as practicing Shinto. I have to just roll my eyes and move on.

  8. I’m curious to know how much that continuity applies to the folk Shintō. I’m new on such studies, but as far as I’ve seen, it is much less recorded and more varied than Jinja Shintō.

    Also, I ask if you will or have already written articles about mikos, especially about before State Shintō. I’ve read about arukimiko, miko villages and the multiple names, social functions and more shamanistic approach they had through the past two millenia. Things that I still didn’t see any record of current activity.

    I am currently reading Shamanism in Japan, by William P. Fairchild. I’m trying to learn the most I can from it, taking care to notice any bias and alike. If you’ve read this one already, I would be grateful if you give me any help about that.

    1. It’s very difficult to say anything about the continuity of folk practices, because they aren’t recorded. It’s also hard to draw a line between Jinja Shinto and folk Shinto, because there are non-standard rituals practised at many jinja. (And, if it’s not attached to a jinja, it can be hard to say whether something is folk Shinto, rather than folk Buddhism, or just a local folk practice.)

      I’ve not written much about miko, but the shamanistic miko do still exist. However, the Shinto establishment doesn’t tend to put them front and centre, and I don’t know a lot about them. I do want to know more about that sort of area, but I haven’t found a way in yet. (And I haven’t read that book, I’m afraid.)

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